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Following the Prophet’s “First Vision” Example

by Sharon Lindbloom
2 March 2020

The February 2020 issue of Ensign magazine, an official publication of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, includes an article written by Henry B. Eyring of the church’s First Presidency. In keeping with the church’s 2020 emphasis on Joseph Smith’s First Vision (due to the traditionally-accepted 200th anniversary of the event), President Eyring uses Joseph Smith as an example to teach today’s Latter-day Saints how they can receive their own personal revelations.

“The First Vision – A Pattern for Personal Revelation” (Ensign, 2/2020, 12-17), discusses Joseph Smith’s preparation and procedure leading up to and following his First Vision, relying on the official account of this vision found in Joseph Smith—History 1 in Mormonism’s scripture, Pearl of Great Price.

In the article, President Eyring emphasizes time and again that when it comes to receiving personal revelations, Mormons need to follow Joseph Smith’s experience and example:

“Joseph Smith’s experience is a pattern we can follow to recognize personal messages from God… we can learn from Joseph Smith’s example how to receive light and knowledge from God. By following Joseph’s example, we can bring lasting joy to those we love and serve for the Lord.” (14)

And so I find it interesting that one of the points President Eyring chooses to highlight is this:

“Quickly write down messages you receive from God. I have found that the spiritual impression that was clear one minute can be blurred or gone a few minutes later. Even in the middle of the night, I have learned to get up and write down impressions. Otherwise they may be lost.

“In this, Joseph Smith provides another lesson for us. He wrote down the experience of his First Vision several times, and he described it to several people over the years. Like other prophets, even the Prophet Joseph learned the importance, and difficulty, of capturing revealed truth in words.” (17)

As it happened, Joseph Smith did not “quickly” write down what he later claimed was a direct encounter with Deity. He didn’t write anything down about a vision at all for 12 years, and what he wrote then was not the same story that he told later. In fact, throughout the “several times” Joseph subsequently wrote and spoke about this First Vision, the details and message differed significantly from one telling to the next, raising many questions. For example,

  • Was Joseph Smith 14 or 15, or even 16 years old at the time?
  • Did Joseph Smith discover by reading his Bible that all churches were wrong, or had that idea never entered his mind?
  • Did Joseph Smith seek God in the woods out of concern for his soul and a longing for forgiveness, or because he wanted to know which church was right?
  • Did Joseph Smith have an encounter with an angel, many angels, Jesus Christ, two (unidentified) glorious personages, or God the Father and His Son?
  • Did the being that addressed Joseph Smith talk about the corruption of Christianity, or never even mention it?

President Eyring, aware of the problems associated with Joseph Smith’s changing story of the First Vision, advises his LDS readers to “quickly write down messages you receive from God…[because] the spiritual impression that was clear one minute can be blurred or gone a few minutes later…may be lost.” I believe President Eyring is suggesting that this is what happened to Joseph Smith. In waiting 12-plus years to tell his story, the message Joseph claims to have received from God became “blurred,” “gone,” or even “lost.”

So for his readers, rather than citing this aspect of Joseph’s experience as an example, President Eyring cites it as a “lesson” – a lesson to be learned from Joseph’s mistakes. Because Joseph Smith didn’t quickly record his much-later-alleged conversation with Deity, the Mormon church today is left with a mishmash of inconsistent statements that form what is considered the “marvelous foundation” of the LDS faith. According to the 15th prophet and president of the Mormon church, Gordon B. Hinckley:

“Our whole strength rests on the validity of that vision. It either occurred or it did not occur. If it did not, then this work is a fraud… upon that unique and wonderful experience stands the validity of this church.” (“The Marvelous Foundation of our Faith,” Ensign (Conference Edition), November 2002, 80)

The LDS church tries very hard to reconcile the inconsistencies in the First Vision stories and correlate them into a cohesive whole, but with little success. The First Vision, as reported and recorded over the years, is beyond blurred. After a 12-year interval, Joseph Smith was unable to correctly and consistently recall the essential details of what he said was a direct encounter with Almighty God. Or maybe the encounter never actually happened at all, which is what President Hinckley was concerned with. If the vision never happened, he said, Mormonism is a fraud.

Based on historical evidence and inherent inconsistencies, it is my conviction that the First Vision never happened. But even if Joseph had experienced some sort of supernatural encounter, his fuzzy memory still creates dire implications for the church. If Joseph Smith could not sufficiently recall the essential details of a direct encounter with God after a 12-year interval, there is no reason to think he would have correctly remembered other revelations that he neglected to write down “quickly.”

Consider Doctrine and Covenants section 132. This very important piece of LDS scripture sets forth doctrine essential to salvation within the Mormon system: exaltation, the new and everlasting covenant, celestial marriage, the continuation of the family unit in eternity, humans becoming gods, the power to bind and seal on earth and in heaven, etc. According to the preface to this revelation in Doctrine and Covenants, it was recorded in 1843, but these things had been revealed to Joseph Smith 12 years earlier. Did he remember these doctrines correctly? Or were some of the details “blurred,” “gone,” or “lost” by the time Joseph wrote it down?

The validity of the LDS church and the doctrines of Mormonism are all anchored in the person of Joseph Smith. There’s no getting around that fact. Joseph said he encountered God in a vision. Joseph said he was visited by angels, given gold plates, empowered to translate, able to receive revelations via his seer stone… Joseph Smith said he spoke for God. Did he?

In examining the problems with the First Vision stories Eric Johnson writes,

“It all boils down to this: Joseph Smith must be believed as a reliable witness, for there were no witnesses to this event. In essence, in order to accept this account, one must put complete faith and trust in Joseph Smith and him alone! If the First Vision never happened and Joseph Smith later conjured up the notion in an attempt to give his story some credibility, it creates a major problem because it calls into question his calling as a prophet and his integrity as a whole.”

Indeed, the validity of everything that comprises The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints comes back to the integrity and truthfulness of the one man, Joseph Smith.

How thankful I am that God does not call us to trust in any man, but to trust in Him (Jeremiah 17:5-6, 7-8)!

In Christ alone my hope is found,
He is my light, my strength, my song.
This Cornerstone, this Solid Ground,
Firm through the fiercest drought and storm.
What heights of love, what depths of peace,
When fears are stilled, when strivings cease.
My Comforter, my All in All,
Here in the love of Christ I stand.
(“In Christ Alone,” Keith Getty/Stuart Townend)

Take comfort and find hope in the Word of God:

“Trust in the LORD forever, for the LORD GOD is an everlasting rock.” (Isaiah 26:4)

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